A while back, a dear friend of mine in Vero Beach gave me a ride in her new car. Right over the glove compartment, in front of the passenger seat, was a boldface black-and-white bumper sticker that said “Love Wins.” “What’s that?” I asked.
She told me about a church, about a mile south of my Dad’s house, that welcomed absolutely everybody, no matter what their ethnicity, sexual orientation, or beliefs. On their website, I read:
“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds. We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a tune in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up, or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than Mother Theresa, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism. We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there, too. If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church. We welcome those who are inked, pierced, or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid, or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts… and you!”
I asked my friend to take me, but I was shocked when she pulled into the parking lot. It was a nondescript blue church with a sign that said “Pioneer Baptist Church.” Although I am comfortable sailing acoss oceans and riding with gun-toting South Dakota strangers, I nearly chickened out at the door. I have only been inside a Baptist church once, and that was to cadge a free Thanksgiving dinner.
That week, when I heard the message of pastor Todd Holden, I was amazed. This Baptist preacher’s message was simple: If we set aside our own judgement and love each other, we are doing it right.
I went to the church three times in March, listening intently when Todd spoke. I left Florida just after Easter with a lot to think about. When I came back in November, I went to his church three more times.
On my sixth visit to church, before the service, Todd announced that he was stepping down as pastor. It wasn’t a surprise; attendance was dwindling. That morning, he told us that he would give only two more sermons. The first would repeat the very first sermon he gave at Pioneer Baptist in 2002, introducing his theology. The second, his final sermon, would sum up his entire theology for the congregation.
In that first sermon, he talked about seeking God and finding him where we least expect him. It was a great message to give when he and his congregation embarked on their 13-year journey together. Since it was Advent, it also aligned with the story of the three wise men. At the end, he reminded us that the following week, he would give a sermon that would sum up his entire theology. He emphasized that several times.
Last Sunday, on the day of Todd’s last sermon, I sat alone in the middle of the front row. I placed my phone on the seat next to me.
Heather, his wife, led several Christmas hymns on her guitar, interspersed with three Bible readings. All were very clear, powerful messages from Jesus about loving each other.
Then Todd got up to speak. I quietly turned on my phone’s voice recorder, thinking I might like to listen to his words in the future, perhaps on one of my long drives across the country. Heather had also set up a camera on a tripod.
He stood there and simply looked at us, the ragtag remnants of a much larger congregation. He didn’t speak immediately, and I thought it was because he was too emotional.
Then he took a deep breath, and he said, “Love one another.”
Todd sat down.
Those three words were his last sermon, the one that would sum up his entire theology.
I sat in disbelief, and finally, I reached over and turned off my voice recorder. I don’t know if I’ll ever go to church again. I don’t think I need to. I have already memorized the most powerful, inspiring sermon ever given in a Baptist church.